Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and the New Regional Landscape

By August 26, 2016

In June, experts from Belgium, Bahrain, France, Germany, India, the UK, US and Israel convened at the BESA Center and at Haifa’s National Security Studies Center for a two-day international conference to study developments in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

View videos of the lectures held at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies on the first day of the conference. A conference summary follows below. Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum (BESA) and Dr. Dan Schueftan (NSSC) co-organized the conclave.

Prof. Gregory Gause, Texas A&M
King Salman and the Future of the Kingdom

Dr. Guido Steinberg, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik
AQAP, IS, and Domestic Security in Saudi Arabia

Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum, BESA Center
The Shiites of Saudi Arabia: The Ultimate Other

Prof. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, University of Washington
Qatar under Amir Tamim

Dr. Yoel Guzansky, Institute for National Security Studies
Nuclear Proliferation in the Arabian Peninsula after the Iran Deal

Prof. P.R. Kumaraswamy, Jawaharlal Nehru University
India and the GCC: The Geostrategic Shift

Dr. Alon Levkowitz, BESA Center
China, Asia and the GCC: Balance of Business and Power


Dr. Guido Steinberg (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik) spoke on domestic security in Saudi Arabia, warning that if he was an adviser to the Saudi authorities, he would tell them to protect the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina against an attack. Steinberg’s prescient warning was issued on June 21. Indeed and alas, an Islamic State suicide bomber struck the holy site just two weeks later, on July 4.

Prof. Gregory Gause (Texas A & M University) discussed Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. He remarked that many observers had stressed Salman was radically changing Saudi policies for a post-oil era, inaugurating a less cautious and more muscular foreign policy, and transferring power to the next generation of the Saudi royal family. But in fact the labor economy would not be able to adjust to economic change, and foreign policy change was limited to Yemen where the Saudis were least likely to come into conflict with Iran. Salman’s main impact has been limited to bringing his family faction to the fore.

Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum (BESA Center) discussed Saudi Arabia’s minority Shiite population. He noted that they were the Wahhabi regime’s “ultimate other,” always sacrificed when the government wanted to shore up its domestic position or attack Iran. While the Shiites were a constant source of worry for the House of Saud, they were too few and despised by too many to be an existential threat.

Dr. Paul Rivlin (Moshe Dayan Center) maintained that in the short term, as a result of the chaos brought about by the Arab uprisings, the Gulf regimes enjoyed increased legitimacy as a result of their stability and were not threatened by the drop in the price of oil. Yet, he cautioned, this bargain would not be enough in the long term, as alternatives to reliance and oil were not readily forthcoming.

Prof. Robert Lieber (Georgetown University) noted that the US relationship with Saudi Arabia had been seriously damaged by the shift in longstanding US foreign policy strategy under the administration of President Obama.  His policies of retrenchment and retreat from American foreign policy commitments had undercut all three component of this alliance: deterrence, defense, and especially reassurance.

Prof. P R Kumarswamy (Jawaharlal Nehru University) discussed Indian-GCC relations, noting that Delhi had a huge economic engagement with the region in energy imports, bilateral trade, labor migration and remittances. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has realized this and made Gulf relations a priority.

Prof. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen (University of Washington) addressed the audience on Qatar under Amir Tamim. He observed that while Qatar will continue be involved in diplomacy and mediation, it would soon face the social and financial pressures of hosting the 2022 World Cup.

Clarisse Pasztory (European Union External Action Service), maintained that the EU and the Gulf countries did not agree on everything, but did agree to cooperate in areas where interests greatly coincided, such as counter-terrorism, Syria, and Yemen.

Dr. Dan Schueftan (National Security Studies Center) spoke about the rationale behind Israel’s relations with regional allies. With respect to countries like Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Jordan, there is a commonality of interests in combating Iran and internal radical threats, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet there could not be an open alliance, because the political costs of open cooperation outweigh the benefits.

Dr. Yoel Guzansky (Institute for National Security Studies) discussed nuclear proliferation in the Arabian Peninsula after the Iran deal, explaining that the GCC countries were not prepared to waive their rights to enrich nuclear fuel. They would therefore require strict monitoring to ensure that they did not turn civilian into nuclear use.

Dr. Alon Levkowitz (BESA Center), speaking on China, Asia and the GCC, remarked that Beijing sees the GCC countries as an important part of its security, due to its heavy investment in the Gulf region. Japan and South Korea are interested in a free trade agreement with the GCC, and China is involving Israel, since with the railroad it plans to build between Eilat and Haifa, it will be able to transship commodities from the GCC to the Mediterranean and beyond.

Prof. Michael Herb (Georgia State University) discussed Gulf strategies for dealing with low oil prices. These include borrowing, raising taxes, cutting spending, and cutting subsidies. Yet many of these make no sense in the Gulf as they have a very serious political cost. With respect to cutting subsidies, though, this is being done by discriminating between citizens and non-citizens. Dubai, at least, is building an entrepôt economy based entirely on foreign labor.

Prof. Meir Litvak (Moshe Dayan Center) explained the strategic rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia as based both on power politics and competing religious visions, Sunni (Saudi Arabia) and Shiite (Iran). The Iranians believe they have surrounded the Saudis in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria, while the Saudi feel weakened by the nuclear agreement and US retrenchment. This tension is so deep that it will not be resolved it the future, he concluded.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror (BESA Center) stressed that Saudi Arabia was experiencing trauma caused by the Iran deal and American retrenchment. As it assessed its new regional role, he explained, it would behoove Riyadh to consider Israel as a partner in a large peace framework. But for that to come about, he concluded, Saudi Arabia needed to pressure the Palestinians to cooperate.

Ambassador John Jenkins of the International Institute for Strategic Studies office in Bahrain is a world expert on the Persian Gulf and radical Islam. (He is a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria and Abu Dhabi, and was Consul General in Jerusalem). He pointed out how the various GCC states were dealing with the present crisis. Saudi Arabia’s young people, for example, have great hopes for young Minister of Defense, Muhammad bin Salman, while the UAE showered its citizens with wealth and prestige. Bahrain kept a tight lid on its Shiite majority, while Oman stood at a slight distance from its GCC allies.

Other presentations were made by Anne Sunik (German Institute of Global and Area Studies), who discussed agreement and discord in the GCC; Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi (Middle East Forum) who analyzed the GCC efforts in the Syrian civil war; Dr. Efrat Aviv (BESA Center), who outlined the Saudi-Turkish alliance; and Prof. Dr. Robert Kappel (German Institute of Global and Area Studies) who offered observations on German and EU Gulf policy.

In summing up the conference, Prof. Gabriel Ben-Dor (Haifa U.) noted that the Gulf regimes do not only buy popular support. They also enjoyed legitimacy, a political culture, and a tradition, that has proven surprisingly resilient.